REVIEW: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ puts a lush coat of paint on a classic creature feature

 'Kong: Skull Island', directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

'Kong: Skull Island', directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

What has the B-movie become in 2017? Does it still exist? I only ask because in the age of Netflix-exclusive distribution deals and a surge in genre filmmaking, it’s sometimes tricky to tell whether a new movie falls into that familiar category: movies that are still kind of bad or ridiculous, but are fun all the same.

Several decades ago, a movie like Kong: Skull Island would unashamedly be a true B-movie. It’s got a giant ape, a remote island full of monsters, and some good-looking people trying to escape. But in our current age of geeky properties getting blessed with nearly $200 million budgets, it can be tricky to figure out what we’re getting with Skull Island. Is the movie too pretty, too well assembled and too stocked with talent (like Oscar winner Brie Larson) to embrace its grungy roots?

One thing’s for certain: Skull Island certainly is fine to look at. I found myself marveling at some of the images that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team cooked up: painterly compositions drenched in colour, like a scene in the second act when a character straps on a gas mask and dives into a cloud of green smoke, hacking at pterodactyl-like creatures with a katana. In an era of big-budget movies that seem obsessed with desaturated footage, it’s nice to see something that shows off what a cinematographer can do; although it’s ironic that Larry Fong, the director of photography on Skull Island, was also the D.P. on Batman v Superman and Sucker Punch.

 Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston star as Mason Weaver and James Conrad.

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston star as Mason Weaver and James Conrad.

The story that kicks off our trip to Kong’s domain will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen a movie about the giant ape before: in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, a group of people are assembled to investigate an uncharted island, but once they arrive they begin to realize that outsiders have been kept away for a reason. Along for the ride this time are Weaver, a self-proclaimed anti-war photographer (Larson), and Conrad, a disillusioned mercenary (Tom Hiddleston). The mission is run by Randa, a mysterious scientist (John Goodman) and a U.S. military escort team led by Packard, a fanatical colonel (Samuel L. Jackson). When Kong interrupts the group’s first exploration, Colonel Packard becomes obsessed with killing Kong, while the others simply want to leave him be. Meanwhile, there’s a more serious threat lurking below the surface that could endanger the rest of the world if the island’s guardian is wiped out.

As beautiful as the production may be, aside from the initial scenes that introduce each character, none of them are developed in any meaningful way once they arrive on the island. Larson’s photographer gamely keeps up with the rest of the men on the mission, and she’s far from a damsel in distress, but we rarely get inside her head once the action sets in. The same is true of Hiddleston’s mercenary – I found myself wishing for a scene where he unravels some of his backstory. And then there’s Jackson’s colonel – he’s given the arguably most detailed motivation, as a military officer who doesn’t want to leave the war behind, but this translates to a blind sense of conviction that gives diminishing dramatic returns as the film wears on.

 John Goodman as Bill Randa, a scientist with the Monarch Corporation.

John Goodman as Bill Randa, a scientist with the Monarch Corporation.

It becomes clear, even in the opening scenes, how Skull Island is being positioned as a lead-in movie to an eventual battle royale film featuring Kong, Godzilla, and even Mothra and King Ghidorah - a veritable reunion of major characters from the Toho film canon. This means the movie clips along at a steady rate – some of the scenes and cutaways feel jammed together, but not annoyingly so. Nevertheless, Skull Island acquires a sense of being in a hurry to get somewhere – not unlike certain solo-superhero Marvel installments. But Vogt-Roberts and his editor Richard Pearson do get some points for their use of slo-mo; while it’s a consistent technique in most of the large action scenes, it never stretches to Zack Snyder-esque extremes, and instead helps orient you in a fight scene and call attention to some of the movie’s prettier framings.

When you weigh Kong: Skull Island against other monster flicks, the film certainly stands out: it has a look and attitude about it that elevates its pulpy foundations. It’s almost like a living version of the bombastic covers from old-school sci-fi and fantasy novels, and therefore very different from the apocalyptic tone of the 2014 Godzilla or the elegiac 2005 King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson. Subject matter aside, it doesn’t feel quite right to call it a B-movie – it all looks a bit too expensive, like when a major fashion house tries to design hipster clothes. Still, if the film performs well and ushers in the shared universe that Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment are planning, it may be hard to escape the original monster movie tone – dancing nuclear lizards and all.

Kong: Skull Island gets three stars out of four.

What did you think of the latest American-made giant monster picture? Are the filmmakers doing justice to the classic characters? Or do you want a little more grit and homemade quality in your B-movies? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!